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December 21, 2018

Independent audit: Extreme cold, not CMP's billing system, to blame for high bills

Photo / James McCarthy
Photo / James McCarthy
An independent audit of Central Maine Power's metering and billing systems concludes that the large number of complaints regarding high bills and billing errors reported by CMP customers last winter are not due to the utility's meters or a new billing system implemented in late 2017.

An independent audit of Central Maine Power's metering and billing systems concludes that the large number of complaints regarding high bills and billing errors reported by CMP customers last winter are not due to the utility's meters or a new billing system implemented in late 2017.

Maine Public Utilities Commission released on Thursday the 127-page report of Liberty Consulting Group of the forensic audit it conducted following its March 1 order launching the investigation of CMP's metering, billing and customer communications issues in late fall 2017 and the early winter of 2018.

The audit was undertaken as a result of a large number of complaints PUC received regarding high bills and billing errors reported by CMP customers.

In its audit Liberty examined the accuracy of CMP's meters, whether the billing system produced timely and accurate bills, if the new billing system was implemented effectively, and if CMP has been responsive and effective in addressing customer complaints and inquiries.

Liberty's conclusion: "Weather and rate changes, not meter or Advanced Metering Infrastructure system error, caused high usage registration and rates across the system as a whole. Historical data — daily, monthly, yearly, and across 2013-17 — indicates that recorded system-usage from November 2017 through April 2018 matched expected usage given the weather conditions."

CMP President and CEO Doug Herling issued the following statement Thursday: "Today's release of findings associated with the audit and investigation conducted by the Liberty Consulting Group confirmed that CMP's new SmartCare system and our smart meters are measuring customer usage accurately and appropriately and that all components of the system are collecting and transmitting data accurately as well. We hope these findings provide customers with a measure of confidence in the new system and the information in their bills."

Herling did acknowledge that the company fell far short in responding to customer complaints last fall and early winter, and outlined a number of steps the utility is taking to improve its customer service.

The entire report may be found online on the PUC's website here.

Summary of findings

Here's a summary of findings and conclusions in the Liberty report's executive summary:

Meter accuracy: "CMP's meters produce accurate measurements of customer usage. Its meter-related databases and communications systems accurately, completely, and timely collect and store usage, and transmit it accurately, completely, and timely to the billing systems of CMP's customer information system, SmartCare. The meters, systems, and databases have done so since Nov. 1, 2017."

Billing system function: "The introduction of SmartCare at the end of October 2017 introduced errors and significant delay into the billing process. Billing error rates for delivery and for fairly standard supply arrangements proved minimal in number and in dollar value … The overall magnitude of those differences, however, is too small to be considered a contributor to high bills last winter."

High bill analysis: "Our analysis showed usage at levels consistent with the expectations that the cold weather of last winter would suggest. Moreover, supplier rates then increased substantially, adding to the effects of higher than typical usage. Weather and rate changes, not meter or AMI system error, caused high usage registration and rates across the system as a whole. Historical data — daily, monthly, yearly, and across 2013-17 — indicates that recorded system-usage from November 2017 through April 2018 matched expected usage given the weather conditions."

Billing system implementation: "Significant gaps in SmartCare testing and training and in the transition to it produced in its initial phase of operation unnecessarily large numbers of errors requiring lengthy manual correction before bill issuance. A shortage of personnel contributed to the inability to eliminate errors before go-live. Continuing shortages of experienced personnel after go-live unduly delayed fixes to the errors, caused significant customer difficulty in reaching CMP representatives and in getting answers to questions and concerns, and meant overly long delays in resolving billing problems."

Customer communications: "CMP experienced a 22% increase in times to handle calls following SmartCare go-live and high rates of calls abandoned by customers before response by the company. CMP has also failed to meet consistently its target level of service (answering 80% of customer calls within 45 seconds, a target consistent with industry experience) as it continued in the second and third quarters of 2018 to struggle to address customer billing issues. A lack of sufficient staffing has materially contributed to long answer and call handling times. A lack of sufficient experience and supervision have impaired the ability to resolve specific customer inquiries and complaints and to address systemic issues underlying them."

Liberty faulted CMP management for failing to address customer complaints in a timely and satisfactory manner, stating in its report: "Customer performance metrics fell below norms and remained so for some time, some of them still today. The extent and degree of performance degradation contributed strongly to a level of customer frustration, doubt, and skepticism already high due to uncharacteristically large bills last winter… we consider management responsible for generating a high level of customer concern, produced by less than adequate SmartCare development and transition to operations processes and by a continuing shortage of sufficient numbers of customer service personnel after SmartCare go-live."

CMP's response

Courtesy / CMP
Courtesy / CMP
Central Maine Power Co. President and CEO Doug Herling.

In a news release issued on Thursday, CMP President and CEO Doug Herling acknowledged the company needs to improve.

"We should have anticipated and planned to handle the increase in customer inquiries as we worked through transition issues with the new system," he said. "As we previously acknowledged and reported to the MPUC, the implementation also caused small-scale system errors that were subsequently fixed.

"More than anything, CMP failed to deliver the level of service that our customers expect and deserve when we introduced the SmartCare billing system. This is not acceptable. It is very important that customers understand that we acknowledge our full responsibility where we fell short of the mark."

Herling said CMP had taken many steps to address the customer service issues identified in Liberty's report. Among them, the company has:

  • "Hired and trained extra employees in its call centers so that calls are answered promptly and our representatives are better equipped to help customers with their questions.
  • "Created management positions within the billing area and the customer contact center to increase management oversight and support in the department.
  • "Created a task force of experts to resolve outstanding issues that remain following the conversion to SmartCare.
  • "Launched a new website www.cmpco.com with enhanced functionality, easier access for customers, and improved search-functions.
  • "Implemented a customer service guarantee when customer bills are delayed, offering a $10 credit to each bill that is late for each month that it is late, ceasing all credit and collection activity for an extended period of time, and offering payment plan arrangements."

Herling concluded: "While we have already taken many steps to address and rectify the resource and training issues within customer service, everybody at CMP remains firmly committed to addressing every one of the conclusions in the Liberty report. … The events of the past year have taught all of us a clear lesson and we will continue to work hard to win back customer trust. This starts with taking responsibility when we fall short and finding the best way to correct problems when they arise."

The finding and conclusions of Liberty's independent analysis and report will be subject to further review and process at the PUC. The commission will determine the next steps when it considers the matter at its next public deliberations session to be held on Jan. 8, 2019.

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